From Noise to Filter: Cybernetics, Information and Communication in Thomas

doubleperidotAI and Robotics

Nov 30, 2013 (4 years and 7 months ago)


Master’s thesis

From Noise to Filter: Cybernetics, Information and Communication in Thomas
Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 and William Gibson's Neuromancer

Johan Schubert Moen

This Master’s thesis is carried out as a part of the education at the University of Agder and is
therefore approved as a part of this education. However, this does not imply that the University
answers for the methods that are used or the conclusions that are drawn.

Michael J. Prince

University of Agder, May 2010
Faculty of Humanities and Education
Department of Foreign Languages and Translation

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: a new perspective for new bodies.....................................................................4
2. Cybernetics: mechanisms of information.............................................................................11
3. The Crying of Lot 49: please feed the demon.......................................................................25
4. Neuromancer: connecting the whole....................................................................................41
5. Conclusion: efficiency in worlds apart.................................................................................66
Works Cited..............................................................................................................................70

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To my girlfriend, Maren, thank you for your love, support and care, and for the
willingness to listen to my ramblings about weird topics.
A great deal of gratitude goes to my family, for backing me on this project, as well as
during my previous years as a student.
To my supervisor, Associate Professor Michael J. Prince, thank you for the guidance and
support you have provided, for the editing you have done, and for all the inspiration you have
given me.

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“In a certain sense, all communication systems terminate in machines, but the ordinary language
systems terminate in the special sort of machine known as a human being.”
Norbert Wiener

1. Introduction: a new perspective for new bodies
The above quote by Norbert Wiener has a flavour of Charles Darwin to it, but where
Darwin made humans into a special sort of animal, Wiener turns the human into a machine.
While Darwin’s effort surely provoked more reactions from his contemporary fellow humans,
Wiener’s does not lack in impact. After all, where Darwin left us all still composed of biological
matter, Wiener opens the door for something that is at least part mechanical, either in its
construction or operation. Regardless of how sinister such a change might appear, it is
nevertheless, just like Darwin’s ideas in On the Origin of Species, more a change of perspective
than an actual change of human nature. In the preface to the second edition of Cybernetics: or
Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine
, Wiener writes that:

“The automata which the first edition of this book barely forecast have come into
their own, and the related social dangers against which I warned, not only in this
book, but also in its small popular companion The Human Use of Human Beings,
have risen well above the horizon.” (Wiener, Cybernetics, vii).

If there was already change in the air when the second edition of Cybernetics came out in 1961,
then there certainly is even more of it today. Many humans have been connected to various
electronic communications systems for a long time, such as the telephone and the television, but

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, page 79
Henceforth, references in parenthesis will be shortened to Cybernetics.
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the technology of today (2010) provides a much greater exposure and is often hard to avoid on a
daily basis. The amount and extent of new information networks and links between human and
machine increase our dependency on these systems.

While neither Norbert Wiener nor any other individual can take credit for these
developments on their own, Wiener’s quote, and his works, gives us both a tool for analysing
information systems, and food for thought. While advancements in technology are usually
considered a good thing, the question of what it does to society and the individual remains an
open one. We now live in an age where our access to information is unrivalled throughout
history, but how much information is too much – and can we even evaluate, process and act on
such large amounts? Technology gives us a convenient tool with which to access information,
but it can not be considered a wholly optional tool. In many instances, connecting to an
electronic information network is both expected and necessary, at work and in private.

This interaction can create a certain dependency, but more importantly it makes us part of
the systems we connect to. Even with only a telephone at our disposal we become connected to
it, and even without it we are still part of another system – society. Our bodies are systems, made
up of parts that must communicate with each other and the world in order to function. The
thought of man as a machine is not a strange one any longer, we have already arrived at a point
where we are connected to non-biological information systems and communicate both with other
humans and with machines through them. Are these connections and dependencies, in spite of
obvious advantages, really such an asset? Do we need to develop them as far as we can in order
to increase our access to information, and the use we get out of it, or would we do just as well by
regressing? For some, our identity as human beings is at stake as well, as we spread parts of
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ourselves throughout the systems we use. Are we becoming information, are we perhaps
information already, and do we risk getting lost inside the lines of communication?

Thomas Pynchon published The Crying of Lot 49 in 1966, not too long after Norbert
Wiener wrote Cybernetics. Pynchon gives us a very contemporary 1960’s world, one that has
seen change as attested by Wiener. Progress was evident, for example transistors had replaced
vacuum tubes in computers, the (unmanned) lunar lander Surveyor 1 launched at the middle of
the decade and the first manned spaceflight mission to leave earth orbit, Apollo 8, was launched
at the end of the decade – both integrating various automated and operator-controlled systems.
However, this was still a few steps behind the world of today with regard to technology. The
infancy of mechanic/electronic systems is however no hindrance in the novel; there is no lack of
information or communication systems. In 1984, William Gibson published Neuromancer.
While the 1980’s had seen considerable technological advancement, such as the advent of
personal computers and several versions of what was to become the Internet, Neuromancer
easily tops this, being a vision of the future that is brimming with technology and the problems
associated with it. Both novels give their protagonists a considerable amount of information to
work with. But where Gibson gives us a fairly realist, even slightly linear, world where the
amount of information available is staggering but still fairly accessible, Pynchon has created a
veritable labyrinth of information
where few things are certain. Since the novels present
different starting points for their protagonists, how do these two information systems compare to
each other in terms of information input, processing efficiency and output?

Though it is arguably more straightforward than for example Gravity’s Rainbow.
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Norbert Wiener’s two books, Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings will be
used extensively in the thesis, providing the basis for the cybernetics framework used to look at
the novels by Gibson and Pynchon. There has been written a large amount about cybernetics
since Wiener wrote his books, but his are a good primer for understanding the basics of
cybernetics, which is perhaps in part due to the fact that the subject was in its infancy at that
point and not yet as detailed as it is today. The Human Use of Human Beings was written after
Cybernetics “In response to a certain demand for me to make its ideas acceptable to the lay
public, [...]” (Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings
, 15). The book offers what Wiener
promises, an easily accessible primer to cybernetics, as well as cybernetics in relation to society.
While Cybernetics is a much more technical book, it nevertheless offers a more detailed account
of cybernetics than The Human Use of Human Beings, and it will be used both to expand on as
well as to supply information not found in the latter.

While the body of criticism on both Neuromancer and The Crying of Lot 49 is
substantial, very little of it contains direct discussions on cybernetics. Two works that treat
Neuromancer, Tom Bukatman’s Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern fiction
and N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics,
Literature, and Informatics will also be used as a supplement to Wiener. While both works also
include a look at Neuromancer, they are useful for the more general ideas they present as well.
Because they are far more recent, they offer a fresher take on human and machine
communication, and they, unlike Wiener deal mostly with cybernetics-related subjects in fiction.
Hayles treats the issue of embodiment in the information age, and the nature of information, and
she is the one dealing most explicitly with cybernetics as such. Bukatman has less of a direct

Henceforth, references in parenthesis will be shortened to The Human Use.
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focus on cybernetics, but he presents a relevant discussion on human identity and how it is
shaped by (and shapes) advanced technology, with some emphasis on the concept of cyberspace.
Much of the other work on Neuromancer only deals with parts of this, such as Philip Elmer-
DeWitt who in Welcome to Cyberspace writes more about the definition of cyberspace, which
while interesting is not on its own relevant enough in relation to the topic at hand; Veronica
Hollinger makes an interesting contribution on cyberpunk in relation to postmodernism in
Cybernetic Deconstructions: Cyberpunk and Postmodernism , and Nicholas Ruddick makes
some good points, particularly on information theory, in Putting the Bits Together: Information
Theory, Neuromancer, and Science Fiction. While all these works are good contributions to their
respective fields, they approach the topic of this thesis somewhat too obliquely, and most are not
quite extensive enough to be of much direct use, though they have provided inspiration.

In relation to The Crying of Lot 49, William Gleason focuses on the information or
“postmodern labyrinth” of Pynchon’s book in his essay The Postmodern Labyrinths of Lot 49,
but mainly with regard to the symbolism in the text; David Seed in Media Systems in The Crying
of Lot 49 takes an excellent look at the mass media in the novel, but again with less of a direct
focus on cybernetics. Victoria De Zwaan has a very short, but informative, commentary in
Pynchon's Entropy, which looks at entropy in Pynchon’s work, but unfortunately she leaves out
The Crying of Lot 49 and mostly discusses entropy as a concept. In Thomas Pynchon's
Narratives: Subjectivity and Problems of Knowing, Alan W. Brownlie treats the difficulties of
gaining reliable knowledge in some of Pynchon’s works, but mostly in relation to the effect this
has on the reader. The essay Pynchon's Prophesies of Cyberspace by Brian Stonehill takes a
solid look at cybernetic references, but only in Gravity’s Rainbow. There is some material on the
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postmodern subject, but this is also covered (more thoroughly in relation to the topic at hand) by
Bukatman and Hayles.

Timothy Melley’s Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America
will be used occasionally. While Melley deals with how conspiracy theories gained ground in
postwar America as a result of a loss of agency in the individual, he also has some good material
on nature and the shaping of the individual, and he also treats both Gibson and Pynchon. In
addition his work has been an inspiration for this thesis as it marks the authors first experience
with cybernetics in relation to the human subject, so even if it does not appear directly in the text
it is at least in the background.

Typically, the fiction analysed with regard to information, technology, human-machine
communication and such is of a type that lends itself very well to this kind of analysis because it
already contains many of the mentioned elements, in particular advanced technology (both
Hayles and Bukatman deal largely with science fiction and cyberpunk literature). However, since
cybernetics is a theory for studying communications systems in general, not only those based on
technology, it should be possible to apply it to texts that have less of a technological focus,
especially as long as they deal with information. Note that the focus will be on applying the
cybernetics framework to analyse the text, not to deal with cybernetics as a theme. In other
words, instead of just identifying parts of the text where for example entropy is mentioned and
explaining its thematic role, I aim to identify the entropy and to explain why it occurs, and how
the cybernetic aspects that are discussed present important plot junctures in a new light.

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By using a cybernetics framework in its original and more technical form it should be
possible to analyse Neuromancer and The Crying of Lot 49 to see how information is treated in
these two texts, which represent more and less technologically advanced worlds respectively.
The more recent literature-related works on cybernetics will be used to provide additional
information and to contrast with Wiener’s work. With the texts analysed in this way, the next
step will be to contrast and compare them to see which elements they have in common and not,
how the different elements interact with one another, and finally what this says about the
efficiency of the information systems in the texts.

The first chapter of this thesis will present an overview of cybernetics as treated by
Wiener in Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings. Cybernetics as treated by other
authors will be included in the second and third chapters in order to broaden the discussion.
The goal is to establish the cybernetics framework that will be applied in the subsequent
chapters, hopefully explaining some of the more important elements of cybernetics, and also
establishing the terminology associated with it. The chapter will not deal with the most technical
sides of cybernetics, as this is both largely irrelevant to its application in this context, as well as
beyond the capabilities and interests of the author. Instead, the focus will be on creating a
framework that can be applied equally to systems consisting of humans, machines and the two
The second chapter will focus on Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49. It will
identify cybernetic elements in the text and analyse these, with a focus on how the protagonist,
Oedipa Maas, treats and is affected by information. The systems analysed here will mostly be of
the human (individual and social) kind, with less human-machine communication.
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The third chapter will treat William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer in much the same way
The Crying of Lot 49 was treated in the previous chapter but with a, perhaps not surprisingly,
larger focus on communication in machines as well as between humans and machines. As in
chapter two, the focus will be on the novel’s protagonist, in this instance Henry Dorset Case.
Further, the two novels will be contrasted and compared on the basis of the findings resulting
from using the cybernetics framework. The goal is ultimately to explain the differences in how
the two novels treat information, and how this affects the two protagonists.

Though cybernetics is at its roots a very technical discipline, it will hopefully help to give
a different look at both technical and non-technical texts, while keeping the focus on the text
itself rather than straying too far out into the realms of hard science.

2. Cybernetics: mechanisms of information
The term “cybernetics” comes from the Greek word “kybernētēs”, meaning “steersman”.
Cybernetics is in its most broad sense a theory of information, communication and messages.
(Wiener, The Human Use, 15). Norbert Wiener states the goal of cybernetics thus:

“It is the purpose of Cybernetics to develop a language and techniques that will
enable us indeed to attack the problem of control and communication in general,
but also to find the proper repertory of ideas and techniques to classify their
particular manifestations under certain concepts.” (Wiener, The Human Use, 17).

The “birth” of cybernetics was made possible by collaboration between scientists from many
different fields, including Wiener, that sought to unite the sciences necessary to develop a unified
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theory of communication.
The need for cross-disciplinary work came, among other things, from
the fact that

“[...] the problems of control engineering and of communication engineering were
inseparable, and that they centered not around the technique of electrical
engineering but around the much more fundamental notion of the message,
whether this should be transmitted by electrical, mechanical, or nervous means.”
(Wiener, Cybernetics, 8).

The inclusion of transmission by nervous means necessitated that not only mathematicians,
physicists or engineers be included in the process, but also neurologists, psychologists and others
who studied the functions of the human being. The human being had to be included because of,
amongst other things, the increasing development of various automated and more advanced
human-operated mechanical and electronic systems. One example given by Wiener is the
construction of (automated) anti-aircraft artillery, and the necessity for the targeting mechanism
to be able to predict the course of a human-operated plane (Wiener, Cybernetics, 5-6). Humans
and machines had begun to be more connected than before, and this necessitated the new
approach of cybernetics.

Since cybernetics is a theory of communication, and therefore information, it is necessary
to establish the term “information” Information is both the smallest and the largest building
block, as it refers to both the smallest parts that constitute communication, as well as
communication itself. For example; messages consist of information and communication consists

A process described in detail in the introduction to Cybernetics.
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of messages. Without information, there cannot be communication.. The term information merits
its own definition in this case; it is a more extensive term than what we might think. The word
easily invokes various physical associations, such as sheets of paper printed with numbers,
textbooks and spoken sentences. All of these are acknowledged as information within the
framework of cybernetics, but to a much larger extent than what we can easily discern through
our sensory apparatus. Wiener tells us that (under quantum theory), a transfer (or coupling) of
information also requires a coupling of energy, making the two very hard to separate (Wiener,
The Human Use, 39). Most forms of interaction require a coupling of energy, and thus
information, which means that we can for most intents and purposes consider everything as made
of information (at least during the process if interaction).

To clarify further, it is useful to consider how interaction between for example particles,
takes place. If two particles collide, there are several possible scenarios that might result. The
particles might alter course, one or both might split up into smaller parts, they might combine to
form a single new particle, and so on. In order for any of these scenarios to take place, we are
forced to view the particles as consisting of information, as indeed they do; information that
gives their speed, their position, their mass, their composition, and anything else that determines
how they will behave in any given situation. We can extend this definition to cover larger objects
consisting of enormous amounts of single particles, such as humans.

When considering communication between humans and humans and machines it will not
do to look at the smallest possible units of information, because observing the behaviour of every
single particle in this equation amounts to an impossible task. Here we need to resort to studying
messages of types that are easily recognizable as such, and the systems they are transmitted
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through. To a human being, messages are limited to signals we can receive through our sensory
apparatus; visual input, audio input, smell, taste and touch. All these signals are interpreted by
the brain, where they are converted into electrical signals. To act on the information received, the
human being employs what Wiener terms “effector organs,” such as arms and legs. The internal
and external functions in a human are quite similar to that of a machine, as a machine receives
signals in much the same way, either in an electrical or mechanical fashion, and acts on them by
using its own type of effector organs (Wiener, The Human Use, 32). In light of this it does make
sense to compare humans to machines in the study of communication, as Wiener does.

In order to make use of information, both humans and machines must possess a certain
set of abilities. First of all, they must be able to receive the information through some sort of
sensory organ. Second, they must be able to process the information and filter out any
disturbances (a topic which will be covered later in this chapter). Third, they must be able to
store the information, at least until it has been acted upon, and at last they must be able to act on
the information. In order for all of this to take place, the information received must be of a type
that corresponds to the type the sensory organ can receive and it must give meaning to the
receiver. In a machine, such as a radio, a signal must match the wavelength and frequency the
radio is tuned to, and it must decode as sound. If a signal decodes as static, it will partially have
fulfilled the first requirement; corresponding to the sensory organ of the receiver. It will not
however have fulfilled the second criterion of giving meaning, since the end receiver of the
signal is a human which will not get very much out of listening to static. It should be said
however that in this case, the static might be acted upon by the human receiver, signaling to him
or her that the radio might need tuning. But, this will not let the signal transfer successfully with
its original meaning intact. In human communication, especially speech, messages sent must be
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in a language the receiver can understand, and the message must contain information that the
receiver can understand. Wiener uses the term “semantically significant information” to cover
information that manages to get into a transmission line, through the “filters” or processing
mechanisms connected to it, and to an activating mechanism.

“Semantically significant information in the machine as well as in man is
information which gets through to an activating mechanism in the system that
receives it, despite man’s and/or nature’s attempts to subvert it. From the point of
view of Cybernetics, semantics defines the extent of meaning and controls its loss
in a communications system.” (Wiener, The Human Use, 94).

Meaning in itself is also directly linked to our sensory and processing abilities; the same
goes for machines, at least on a purely logical level. Wiener states that “All logic is limited by the
limitations of the human mind when it is engaged in that activity known as logical thinking.”
(Wiener, Cybernetics, 125). The same goes for machines, and especially computers, as no
machine in existence today (2010) can exceed its processes beyond what its programming
allows. To a certain extent, Wiener’s statement can be applied to processes other than logical
thinking alone. Both humans and machines are limited in what they can observe, understand and
do, based on how their bodies are constructed. This being said, while a brain of one sort or
another is limited in what it can perceive and do by the sensory organs and effector limbs it
controls, the brain also limits what the body can perceive and do. Brain, sensory organs and
effector limbs are all heavily interconnected parts of the same system, and not independent units.
These bodily limitations, and the possibility of overcoming some of them (or not), will be treated
further later in this chapter.
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“When I control the actions of another person, I communicate a message to him, and
although this message is in the imperative mood, the technique of communication does not differ
from that of a message of fact.” (Wiener, The Human Use, 16). In this passage from The Human
Use of Human Beings, Wiener illustrates another important part of cybernetics; the fact that
communication and control are closely linked to each other, and that a message is sent with the
hope that someone or something will act on it. The response expected need not be directed back
at the sender; but some sort of response or action is nevertheless expected, because sending
information would otherwise be unnecessary. While the word “control” might give the wrong
associations in this case, such as an image of a drill sergeant yelling at recruits to make them
march properly or something similar, this is not the whole meaning of the term, but rather only a
small part of it.. Whether we send a signal by pressing a button on a computer, pulling a lever on
a machine or by speaking to another person, we ultimately seek to control the recipient by
sending them a signal they act upon. If the recipient acts on the signal, it will be because it
contained sufficient meaning important enough to merit a reply. Even though a signal might
provoke a response because the sender has some sort of malevolent power over the recipient, this
is not the only type of signal that gives the sender control. If you take a picture of someone, the
mere act of pulling out the camera might make them straighten up and smile, because they have
been taught that they should try to look good when someone takes a picture of them. In a
conversation involving two people, there are at the same time two senders and two receivers. The
one that sends the first message provokes a response from the other person, which in turn sends a
message back, which again provokes a response from the first person, and so on. In other words,
while a sender with ill will can control others by communicating with them, all information that
is sent resulting in a response exerts some level of control over the receiver.

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When studying what information is, how it is transmitted, the effects of its transmission
and so on, it is hard to avoid looking at how it is also lost and degraded. While messages of all
different kinds are continually being transmitted successfully, both reaching their recipient and
making the recipient act as the message instructs, many messages also fail to reach their
recipient, or fail to cause the desired effect. Perhaps surprisingly, all information degrades to
some extent, sometimes noticeably and sometimes not. The term used to cover this degradation
is entropy.

Wiener defines entropy as the amount of disorganization in a system, making it the
opposite of information, which is defined as the amount of organization in a system (Wiener,
Cybernetics, 11). Another way of putting it would be to say that information is order, while
entropy is chaos. This latter definition in particular gives a useful point of view, since entropy
leads to a decrease in the quality of a message, thus increasing the chances of
miscommunication, thus increasing the chances for the message to cause chaos.

Wiener also gives a useful example of how entropy works, in relation to the second law
of thermodynamics. The second law states that heat cannot flow spontaneously from a low-
temperature material to a high-temperature material, but instead the heat from the high-
temperature material will dissipate to the low-temperature material over time. The result of this
is that it is impossible for all the heat from, for an example, a heat engine to be converted into
work, some of the heat will always flow to regions of lower temperature. This also makes it
impossible to construct a truly closed system or a machine capable of perpetual motion, since
both would bleed off energy to the outside, and require outside sources to replenish the lost
energy. In relation to the second law, Wiener states that “That information may be dissipated but
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not gained is [...] the cybernetic form of the second law of thermo-dynamics.” (Wiener, The
Human Use, 78). As heat, using the cybernetic definition, is information, this rewriting of the
second law of thermodynamics is a useful reminder that entropy is ultimately present in any
system. Entropy is inevitable because information cannot be transferred without interaction,
interaction that always results in some form of change in the information, a fact that is also
confirmed by Wiener:

“However, under the quantum mechanics, it is impossible to obtain any
information giving the position or the momentum of a particle, much less the two
together, without a positive effect on the energy of the particle examined,
exceeding a minimum dependent on the frequency of the light used for
examination. Thus all coupling is strictly a coupling involving energy [...]”
(Wiener, Cybernetics, 58).

Before I go on to describe some more concrete examples of how entropy might increase
in communication, I wish to look at a mechanism that can help decrease the chances of it
occurring in too large quantities. This mechanism is called “feedback,” and it is present both in
mechanical and electrical systems and communication, as well as in humans. Feedback is in
essence a way to monitor a known system in order to ensure that the system is working properly
before sending a message. The individual components of a system record their performance or
lack thereof, and should the performance be less satisfactory, the components in question can be
repaired or deactivated by a central control mechanism. A feedback system might only
encompass one specific function in a mechanical or electrical system, or it might encompass a
more complex system such as a human being. In the latter case, there is enough memory
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available to store a much more extensive list of past performance, which can be used to regulate
present performance. In addition, more complex systems can have the facilities necessary to
extrapolate the outcome of a new process on the basis of performance in past, similar processes.
In humans, feedback can take the form of conditioned reflexes, where a type of behaviour is
regulated by past experience (Wiener, The Human Use, 33).

A conditioned reflex can manifest itself as something slightly mechanical, for an example
by ducking when a shadow passes overhead (because the person in question once saw a shadow
in the corner of their eye, and promptly was hit in the head by a soccer ball). Or, it could
manifest itself in a conversation, for an example by a person steering away from a certain
conversational topic because he or she knows that one of the other participants dislikes the topic,
or by awaiting confirmation from the recipient of an order that the order has been received.
While both humans and machines employ feedback mechanisms, they differ in that humans are
usually able to learn from their experience, while machines mainly rely on a very narrow set of
data – typically by comparing their present performance to one set of data detailing their target
performance. However, while machines will always respond to feedback as long as the devices
recording performance and adjusting performance are in working order, humans can choose to
disregard feedback, or they might do so involuntarily.

The fact that humans can disregard feedback opens up an interesting conundrum. If a
piece of information reaches through to a human, and the human chooses to disregard the
information, does this increase entropy? In a very strict sense, perhaps it does, because the
human acts on the information in a radically different way than the sender intended. At the same
time, disregarding information is also a way of acting upon it, as it is one of the many possible
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decisions available in a more complex system like a human. I believe the answer depends largely
on the reason for disregarding the information. If it is done even if the receiver understands the
meaning of the information, it can not be said to really increase entropy since the information has
caused a conscious response in the receiver. If it is done for an example because the receiver is
unsure of the true meaning of the information, it is really an error in processing, and can thus be
said to increase entropy.

A typical cause of entropy in electrical systems is background noise; a signal interfering
with communications in a transmission line, often caused by the interaction between the line and
the signal sent through it. In order for signals not to be drowned by the background noise they
themselves create, they need to be of a certain strength (Wiener, The Human Use, 39).
Otherwise, the information in the signal is disturbed by the energy coupling with the line.
Background noise of this type can occur in human communication as well, for an example when
attempting to have a conversation in a very noisy environment where the noise interferes with
and blocks the participants’ voices. Similar situations can occur in any situation where a human
being’s sensory organs are being hard pressed or shocked; the energy of the shock blocks out the

In machines, entropy is usually caused by component or programming failures,
insufficient power or outside interference. While these problems might be difficult enough to fix,
identifying the problems is nevertheless a doable task, as well as preventing them. The design of
the machine is usually known, it usually has a limited amount of functions, internal connections
and logical options in its programming. Identifying entropy in human communication is on the
other hand more difficult, since there are more different factors in play. Preventing entropy, or
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fixing problems caused by it, is potentially an even more daunting task, especially since all
humans differ in the way they treat information. When it comes to processing, filtering and
acting on information, humans are affected by such things as past experience, psychological
state, physical state and environmental variables. In addition, all of these factors might interfere
and interact with each other, such as reminding someone of their dead father because they are
depressed because their rheumatism flared up because it rains.

Humans do not only process information based on a standard set of criteria such as
machines do, they interpret it, and the interpretation is governed by both internal and external
factors as described above. A message will be interpreted with respect to who sent it, and if the
sender is present and conveying the message verbally body language, intonation and appearance
also come into play. Messages will also be scanned for possible double meanings, irony,
sarcasm, and so on. At any of these stages, it is possible for the receiver to interpret the sender
wrong. Human communication is without complex, but it is also more vulnerable to entropy
because of this. Simplifying human communication, while certainly possible, is not the best of
solutions, since a decrease in complexity also means there is a decrease in the amount of
information that can be transferred.

Entropy, while inevitable, can to a certain extent be decreased locally in a system,
provided one can identify the elements of the system where the entropy is increasing. At the
same time, identifying these elements requires sending and receiving information, therefore
again potentially increasing entropy. Entropy ultimately affects all information, although the
extent can differ, which we shall see later in the discussion on Neuromancer and The Crying of
Lot 49.
Moen 22

Thus far I have described some aspects of communication mainly between humans, or
between machines. I will now look at some of the aspects of communication between human
and machine, a topic I will return to later, particularly when discussing Neuromancer by William
Gibson. Communication between human and machine is a commonplace thing, although the
form it takes looks less like the communication between humans that we are usually accustomed
to. Transfer of information between human and machine as well as entropy in this transmission
are of particular interest, since both are first of all problems when designing human-machine
communication systems and because both offer a useful contrast between the two main parts in
such systems.

“We ordinarily think of communication and language as being directed from person to
person. However, it is quite possible for a person to talk to a machine, a machine to a person, and
a machine to a machine.” (Wiener, The Human Use, 76). Wiener writes this in relation to the
operation of automated power stations, where humans control and communicate with the stations
remotely, relying on feedback from the system to operate it. In this case, the machine does not
have a central decision making system built in to it on site, but instead relies on a human to
evaluate feedback and make decisions based on current data. Most machines found in a
household operate in much the same manner. Lamps, ovens, vacuum cleaners and other
appliances are all turned on/off and regulated by their human user, who evaluates their
performance based on feedback directly from the machines or from the environment. The only
difference is that most of these machines do not have purpose-built sensory organs that transmit
feedback directly to their user; instead the user relies on direct observation of them. A lamp for
example is activated or deactivated based on whether the user needs extra light or not. The
feedback the user relies on is mainly whether or not the lamp produces any light or not. If the
Moen 23

lamp starts to flicker or turns off without interference from the user, the user can for an example
check if the bulb is in working order or not, whether the electrical cord is plugged in properly, or
even whether or not there is a power outage(by observing the performance/non-performance of
other appliances dependent on electrical energy). A personal computer is an example of a device
producing much more direct feedback. If its operations are successful, the results will be shown
on the computers screen. Likewise, if its operations are unsuccessful, it will in most cases display
an error message or similar on the screen.

Communication between human and machine is problematized by the fact that humans
and machines do not possess the same type of input/output devices. Machine controls must
usually be designed with an extra step in mind to accommodate their human user, such as buttons
or levers, and their performance must be physically visible, whether it is in the form of moving
pistons or figures on a screen. The most efficient types of input/output for a machine, such as
electrical signals, are not available directly to a human user. This has the potential to increase
entropy, since it introduces another component into a system, namely any device needed to make
the input/output available to use by a human. These devices also tend to simplify the workings of
the machine to such an extent that it becomes difficult for the human user to evaluate its actual
performance, instead forcing the user to rely solely on the performance evident in the results the
machine gets. A personal computer for an example, does not display its myriad of logical
operations to the user, but instead only displays a representation of its results suitable for viewing
by the user. In this case, the user has neither sufficient processing power nor understanding to
review the machine’s performance directly. The lack of a suitable way to communicate with a
machine also means that humans are ill fitted to take direct part in its inner workings.

Moen 24

“[...] in general, any computing machine is used because machine methods are
faster than hand methods. In any combined use of means of computation, as in
any combination of chemical reactions, it is the slowest which gives the order of
magnitude of the time constants of the entire system. It is thus advantageous, as
far as possible, to remove the human element from any elaborate chain and to
introduce it only where it is absolutely unavoidable, at the very beginning and the
very end.” (Wiener, Cybernetics, 119).

While a human element might slow down the workings of a machine, its lack of a way to
communicate directly with a machine also opens up the possibility that it will misinterpret the
output from the machine, thus increasing entropy in the system.

However, while humans and machines usually communicate through a very limited
system adapted to allow a human to physically interface with the machine, there remains a more
direct option; establishing a direct neurological connection between the human users body and
brain and the machine. As the brain works by transferring electrical signals to the rest of the
body, which then translates these signals into physical action, a direct connection with the brain
can largely remove the limitations encountered in human-machine communication. A prime
example of such a connection is presented in Neuromancer in the form of cyberspace, an
advanced version of today’s internet. Cyberspace allows a human to directly access a network of
computers, controlling the operations mainly through thought. This book will be discussed in
detail later, but for now it is interesting to present some of the problems that may affect such a
connection. One is a question of performance; does such a direct connection really give the
human user complete access to the information stored in the machine? While it without doubt
Moen 25

gives the human user a more extensive and more direct access to information, the information
will still have to be presented in a way the user can comprehend. While the brain is a powerful
computer in its own right it might not be well suited to processing millions of 1’s and 0’s, being
more suited to processing representations of larger strings of code. Wiener states that “The
physical identity of an individual does not consist in the matter of which it is made.” (Wiener,
The Human Use, 101), and while this may be true, the matter making up the body does limit the
ways in which the body can work. In relation to cyberspace, this brings up the question of how
free from bodily limitations an individual connected to it would be. The upper limit of freedom
would be decided by the brain, since it limits just how much a human can understand, but also by
the body, since the body is vital in how we as humans define ourselves. And since humans and
machines are different in how they communicate, how well are they really able to comprehend
each other?

3. The Crying of Lot 49: please feed the demon
Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 lends itself well to being examined
using a cybernetics framework, because it's oblique relation to detective fiction in general
necessitates a substantial focus on information. The protagonist, Oedipa Maas, sets out to
execute the will of her late ex-husband, Pierce Inverarity. As she does this, she stumbles upon a
mysterious renaissance play called “The Courier’s Tragedy” full of events that apparently
correlate with real-life occurrences, many of which seem to lead back to Inverarity. As she
investigates these clues, it starts to look like the shadowy organisation Trystero/Tristero, a great
source of mischief and conspiracy in the play, might actually exist in real life. While she
embarks on a classic detective hunt for information, she is at times presented with such large
Moen 26

amounts of it that she starts to both feel overwhelmed by the task of making sense of it and to
wonder whether any of it is really true.

As Wiener tells us, control and communication are closely linked to each other. Messages
are sent with the intention of provoking some form of reaction; if the sender of a message
receives a response, he has successfully controlled the receiver enough to produce said response.
This has the side effect giving a slightly new meaning to the popular tenet “information is
power”; information is power if it is used, because the sender controls the receiver. In turn, the
original receiver might control the original sender by sending a response back, but the amount of
control can easily be limited by how well the original receiver understands the original message.
If the receiver does not fully understand the message, it might be difficult to produce an adequate
response, although this can of course happen by chance. At any rate, information that is simply
received without provoking a response is of less use, since it is not particularly suited to storage
because of entropy. Large amounts of information can potentially control a receiver if he or she
is not able to access and process the information properly, because the receiver will then spend
much effort on trying to make sense of the information, rather than acting on it.

. We have already established that within the cybernetic framework, everything is
information, but we also know that not all of the information is necessarily accessible. Early in
the novel, as Oedipa is looking down at a part of San Narciso, she is already becoming aware of
the fact that information is everywhere.

“[...] and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a
battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets,
Moen 27

from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing
clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about
Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of
concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what
the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out) [...]” (Pynchon,

In a sense, comparing a circuit card to a city is fairly accurate. Scott Bukatman also notes that, in
this case microchips, look like “urban sprawls” when magnified and viewed from above
(Bukatman, 110). The size of a circuit, and how it is connected to others, defines (and limits)
what kind of and how much information it can let through. A city street is a good analogue in
relation to this. Its connections with other streets limits how much traffic it can handle
efficiently; too much and the traffic starts slowing down.

The use of a particular street is not only dependent on how efficiently it can get people
and vehicles from one geographical location to another. The preferences of its users; based on
concerns such as whether it is considered to run through a safe neighbourhood, whether it offers
nice scenery, and so on also play their part. Oedipa’s thoughts on San Narciso as a city reflect
this, because the city and its constituent parts are not so much purely geographical locations, but
a number of ideas that provoke different associations in an individual. “Like many named places
in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts - census tracts, special
purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access to roads to its own
freeway.” (Pynchon, 13). From this point of view, a city does have a certain capacity to
communicate, because different parts of it represent different ideas that are at least in part
Moen 28

accessible to the individual. A financial district for an example might just be the result of a single
individual’s idea that the area is a good place to conduct business in. At some point, for various
reasons, other people agreed with this sentiment and proceeded to move their business there as
well. The result is, again, not only a geographical location housing a certain type of upscale
buildings marked with signs that say “Bank of ...,” but a place that houses a certain type of
people as well. In addition, people that are not part of the idea of the place might catch a certain
air from it that says that it is not a place to go skating wearing jeans and a t-shirt, or that it is a
place where the relation between money and personal status is highly stressed. In other words,
the system can end up grouping similar types of information together, which again affects what
other types interact with it.

There is a great variety in the kinds of information in the Crying of Lot 49, ranging from
the plainly visible to background cues. One possible information channel is the one I just
discussed, the city viewed as a circuit board. In this instance however, the city represents more of
an idea of information, rather than an actual source.

Therefore it is more useful to look at it, as I
have done, as an example of information processing, rather than an actual example of the
information processed by Oedipa. The latter is of course also important, so a look at the different
types of information that Oedipa processes, or tries to process, is merited. With regard to that,
one of the key issues that humans come across when they communicate is that they must
interpret the information they process. As we shall see, this becomes a hindrance for Oedipa
because of the sheer amount of information she is presented with, which again comes from many
different sources, many of which are daunting to interpret by nature, and often not even primary
sources (which is an issue since a secondary or tertiary source in itself offers an interpretation of
another source, likely increasing entropy in the process).

Moen 29

Early in the story, she goes to “Echo Courts,” a motel in San Narciso, to meet her co-
executor, a lawyer named Metzger. At one point, Oedipa turns on the television, and Metzger
notices that the film running, called “Cashiered,” is one he starred in as a child. As Oedipa and
Metzger watch the movie, Metzger decides he wants to bet on the outcome. Oedipa is reluctant
to do so because, as she says, “”[...] the movie’s made.”” (Pynchon, 22). This is one of her first
experiences with entropy (within the text), and it is a good example of entropy in human
communication; Oedipa is assuming that Metzger wants to win the bet, which he could easily do
since he already knows the outcome. Despite this they end up betting, and as it turns out she
wins. In other words, her interpretation of the situation failed her. Another example of entropy as
a result of human action presents itself as they watch the movie. Someone responsible for placing
the film reels in correct order has failed to do so, thereby altering the flow of information
(Pynchon, 23). Oedipa has Metzger there to tell her what just happened, but as the mistake takes
place as the movie resumes after a commercial break; it could be difficult to notice that the
change is a mistake if the viewer had not previously seen the movie. It might easily have been a
wholly different experience if Metzger had not been there to spot the error.

For Oedipa, the confusion really begins as the story of the Tristero is presented to her
when she goes to see Richard Wharfinger’s play “The Courier’s Tragedy”. Just before that, she
is introduced to the postal system W.A.S.T.E by Mike Fallopian, whom she meets at a bar on the
outskirts of San Narciso. As we shall see, these two sources of information alone shall manage to
cause a great deal of confusion for Oedipa.

W.A.S.T.E. is an alternative, underground, postal system that aims to break government
monopoly (Pynchon, 39). When Mike Fallopian describes the W.A.S.T.E system, he states that
Moen 30

“To keep it up to some kind of a reasonable volume, each member has to send at least one letter
a week through the YoYodyne system. If you don’t, you get fined.” (Pynchon, 39). The letter he
shows Oedipa and Metzger as a typical example of the mail sent with W.A.S.T.E. shows the
result of this practice, as it does not contain any large amount of useful information, and as the
sender seems to have the option of simply talking to Fallopian instead of sending the letter. Thus,
much of the information sent through the system is sent simply to ensure that the system remains
in use. While information is being sent, little of it is semantically significant, and most of it is
more akin to background noise or static – signals without the ability to reach an activating
mechanism that produces a meaningful response from the receiver.

The play “The Courier’s Tragedy” and the events in it that correlate with the events
connected with the legacy of Pierce Inverarity constitutes the backbone of the story, presenting
Oedipa with the mystery of the Tristero. The play in itself is a problematic source of information,
since there are several different versions of the script. Some information, such as Inverarity’s
connection to the Beaconsfield company which apparently bought the bones of a number of
American soldiers that were killed and dumped at the bottom of an Italian lake (Pynchon, 46), is
connected to events in the play, in this case the disappearance of the “Lost Guard of Faggio”
which suffered the same fate as the American soldiers (Pynchon, 57). While information such as
this suggests a link between recent events and events in the play, it is difficult to say with
certainty. In the case of the American soldiers in the lake, the information is provided by Miles, a
member of the band “The Paranoids,” who is not necessarily the best of sources, as he was not
there to witness the event (and it does not appear as if he has thoroughly researched the matter).
Despite this fact, Oedipa does not attempt to get his story confirmed from other sources; rather,
she is more concerned with the fact that it fits so neatly with the events in the play.
Moen 31

One of the most prominent visual cues in Oedipa’s detective hunt is the muted post horn,
which is associated with the W.A.S.T.E system, but which at the same time is the symbol of the
Tristero. On the surface, the meaning of the muted post horn is easily discovered, as Oedipa is of
the opinion that “Whoever they were their aim was to mute the Thurn and Taxis post horn.” (a
normal post horn, sans mute) (Pynchon, 78). The battle between the postal services of Thurn and
Taxis and Tristero is thoroughly explained throughout the novel, especially through “The
Courier’s Tragedy”, and the story supports the idea that the muted post horn is simply a jibe to a
competitor. A mute placed in a post horn will also produce a quieter, less distinct sound, fitting
well with the underground nature of the Tristero.

However, both the acronym W.A.S.T.E. and the workings of the postal system with the
same name offers an alternative, albeit slightly self-contradictory meaning. It is difficult to claim
otherwise than that a postal system is both an extensive and important channel for
communication. It is perhaps even more important in Wharfinger’s play, where there are no other
means of efficient long-distance communication; no radio, television, or telephone. Therefore,
controlling the postal system is a very efficient way of controlling the flow of long-distance
communication (such control could also be used to disrupt the communication sent), something
Professor Emory Bortz, a scholar who has worked a lot with Wharfinger’s plays, suggests to be
the Tristero’s goal as he discusses “The Courier’s Tragedy” with Oedipa later in the text
(Pynchon, 135). On one hand, the Tristero definitely aims to stop the Thurn and Taxis system, to
mute their post horn, but there is also the possibility that the Tristero is in a way muting its own
post horn, not in the manner of simply making its tone deeper, but in the manner of pushing the
mute so far inwards that it stops any sound what so ever from escaping. The latter idea, while
odd, does have some support in the novel; such as the fact that there is a lot of useless
Moen 32

information being sent through W.A.S.T.E., creating background noise with the potential to
interfere with more useful information.

The name of the postal service, W.A.S.T.E., is an acronym for We Await Silent
Tristero’s Empire (Pynchon, 139). The acronym ties in with the muted post horn, and goes a way
towards suggesting that the final incarnation of the postal system or whatever other plans the
Tristero has, will manifest as a silencing of (useful) communication. It is also interesting to note
that one of the workers at the “Yoyodyne” industrial complex named Stanley Koteks, whom
Oedipa meets just after being introduced to W.A.S.T.E. and Tristero, is quite adamant on the fact
that the acronym is not to be pronounced merely as “waste”. ““It’s W.A.S.T.E., lady,” he told
her, “an acronym, not ‘waste’, and we had best not go into it any further.” (Pynchon, 70).
Another acronym that turns up later in the story, D.E.A.T.H., stands for Don’t Ever Antagonize
The Horn (Pynchon, 98). While fitting nicely as a warning to people mistaking W.A.S.T.E. for
“waste”, it does more to underline the Tristero’s dark nature (though it is interesting to note that
the one time the acronym appears, it is painted inside “[...]an exhausted busful of Negroes going
on to graveyard shifts [...]” (Pynchon, 98)).

Another type of visual signal is found in the form of Pierce Inverarity’s stamp collection,
where a number of seemingly ordinary stamps contain irregularities linking them to the Tristero.
While the stamps and their age do provide a timeline that seemingly confirms the organisations’
activity in America, their main role is perhaps that they attract a possible Tristero representative
to the auction that concludes the novel. Apart from this, the stamps do not really provide any
useful new information, and as a source they are not easily accessible, being discovered almost
Moen 33

by accident by the philatelist Genghis Cohen who is charged with assessing the stamp collection
left by Inverarity (Pynchon, 75-79).

As Oedipa plays the detective, she is faced with a wealth of information, a lot of which
seems to fit neatly together, perhaps too neatly even from her perspective. But as we have seen,
there is already a great potential for confusion based on the Tristero-W.A.S.T.E connection. The
following quote nicely illustrates one of Oedipa’s problems, the fact that she receives so much
seemingly related information over a very short period of time:

“Though she saw Mike Fallopian again, and did trace the text of The Courier’s
Tragedy a certain distance, these follow-ups were no more disquieting than other
revelations which now seemed to come crowding in exponentially, as if the more
she collected the more would come to her.” (Pynchon, 64).

While Oedipa is aware of the fact that she is surrounded by information, that alone is not enough
in itself; she must also be able to access it and process it for it to be of any use to her. According
to Wiener; “Semantically significant information in the machine as well as in man is information
which gets through to an activating mechanism in the system that receives it, despite man’s
and/or nature’s attempts to subvert it.” (Wiener, The Human Use, 94). Also, she does not only
see herself as surrounded by information, but also by answers; “As if (as she’d guessed that first
minute in San Narciso) there were revelation in progress all around her.” (Pynchon, 31). While
there might be revelation all around her, it need not consist of information that is directly useful
to the case she is pursuing. Oedipa herself at times doubts the veracity of all the information and
the seemingly connected events she stumbles upon; “Either Trystero did exist, in its own right, or
Moen 34

it was being presumed, perhaps fantasied by Oedipa, so hung up on and interpenetrated with the
dead man’s estate.” (Pynchon, 88). Since she gains so much seemingly related information from
different sources, her need to pursue all these leads is understandable. In theory, examining all
the leads could reveal which of them are in fact connected, and which just share some random
similarities. The trouble with the approach is that by doing so, she continues to stumble upon
new, again seemingly related leads. She employs no mechanism by which the less important
information is filtered out, and the result is that the amount of information she must process
increases, the strain of this again allowing more information to pass through unfiltered.

Oedipa is introduced to the concept of entropy by the scientist John Nefastis, whom she
learns about from Stanley Koteks. Oedipa learns of entropy by being given the same example
Wiener uses in The Human Use of Human Beings, namely that of Maxwell’s demon. Maxwell’s
demon works as follows: Imagine a closed system made up of a container (A) filled with hot gas
connected by two tubes to another container (B) that contains a heat engine. One tube runs
directly from A into the heat engine in B, fuelling it with gas, and the other tube runs from the
exhaust system of the heat engine, letting the exhaust pass back to A. In each tube there is a
trapdoor, and each trapdoor is guarded by a “demon” that can sense the speed of the approaching
gas molecules. As hot molecules are faster than cold ones, the demon guarding the door leading
from A to B only lets fast molecules pass through thereby fuelling the heat engine. The demon
guarding the door leading from B to A only opens the door for the slow moving molecules that
have spent some of their energy fuelling the machine. By doing so, the two demons ensure the
heat engine always has hot molecules to run on, while they at the same time recycle the fuel the
engine has already used, thereby apparently creating perpetual motion. (Wiener, The Human
Use, 28-29)
Moen 35

This design only works because of the way it treats information. As Wiener puts it “In
nineteenth century physics, it seemed to cost nothing to get information.” (Wiener, The Human
Use, 29). However, as we know within cybernetics the term “information” covers everything, in
this case the molecules the demons sort, the speed of the molecules, and the demons themselves.
The demons are part of the system, and we have to consider the entropy for both the gas and for
the demons, not for the gas on its own (Wiener, Cybernetics, 58). In order to sort the molecules,
the demons have to gain information about them, specifically whether they move fast or slow,
which will result in some of the information in the gas molecules being transferred to the demons
each time they evaluate them. Though it would take time, eventually too much information
would flow from the molecules to the demons, and the system to be rendered inoperable, a
process that could only be reversed by introducing an external source of power (Wiener, The
Human Use, 29-30). The system could over some time avoid a localized increase in entropy, but
only until a certain threshold was reached.

John Nefastis has constructed a machine similar to the one Maxwell describes, one he
believes will work if a so called “sensitive” interacts with the demon by staring at a picture of
Maxwell (Pynchon, 84). Nefastis is quite convinced his machine works, but Oedipa is more
skeptical. “But had Clerk Maxwell been such a fanatic about his Demon’s reality?” (Pynchon,
85). Although asking Maxwell is out of the question, I believe we can assume with some
certainty that he was describing a theoretical principle, rather than an actual demon. And as we
know, entropy can not be avoided by neither Maxwell’s nor Nefastis’ machine. Oedipa puts it
rather elegantly when she is told of Nefastis and his machine by Stanley Koteks; “”Sorting isn’t
work?”” (Pynchon, 68). Koteks, like Nefastis, is still working by what Wiener calls “nineteenth
century physics,” his reply being that “”It’s mental work,” Koteks said, “But not work in the
Moen 36

thermodynamic sense.”” (Pynchon, 68). But as we know, a transfer of information involves a
coupling of energy as well, so even though thoughts might appear as being information-related
work alone, they do involve “work in the thermodynamic sense”.

Oedipa has the gist of it; that information is altered, and eventually destroyed by entropy.
The element that introduces most of the entropy in The Crying of Lot 49 is human; not only
Oedipa herself, but also the myriad of sources she gets information from. The director of “The
Courier’s Tragedy,” Randolph Driblette, illustrates one of the key problems humans face when
processing information when he says “”The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line
bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in
this head. Mine.”” (Pynchon, 62). Despite her apparent understanding of information and
entropy, and the fact that she is presented with a large number of sources and a lot of
information, Oedipa is not thorough in checking the validity of the information she has received
by going back to the source she got it from. Instead, she seems to prefer to validate it by
comparing it to the other information she has, or by searching for new information. While this
tactic can work, it can fail if any false information is used in the validation attempt. Oedipa
wants answers, but her processing of the information that might give her answers is unstructured,
and not sufficient to prevent or reduce entropy.

Oedipa’s quest for answers leads her further and further into a mode of looking at
information that is strikingly similar to the cybernetic definition, namely that everything is in
essence comprised of information. This is particularly evident towards the end of the book,
where the reader is allowed to glimpse Oedipa’s thoughts on the city of San Narciso;

Moen 37

“For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the
zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left,
ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be
a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.”(Pynchon, 150).

One could argue that Oedipa is in essence correct in this case, at least partially. The information
that makes up everything around her might well be represented by ones and zeroes, although it
might be safe to assume that she does not really see everything in code (like Neo in The Matrix),
but rather that the amount of information she is receiving through different channels is
overwhelming her, making it appear to her as if everything is (accessible) information. However,
and this is perhaps the key difficulty Oedipa faces, whether or not the world can be viewed as
information matters little if she is not able to extract some meaning from it, or as Wiener puts it:
“All logic is limited by the limitations of the human mind when it is engaged in that activity
known as logical thinking.” (Wiener, Cybernetics, 125). This is also shown, again in relation to
the city, when she spends a night drifting through San Narciso; seeing a multitude of painted post
horns, hearing people talking about using W.A.S.T.E, and other things related to the mystery she
is trying to solve (Pynchon, 88-104). Here, the idea of the city as a circuit card, flowing with
information, is to a large extent confirmed, but it is also evident that she is either following the
wrong circuits, unable to access the information properly, or both.

There is, to put it mildly, a lot of information being presented to Oedipa. The quality of it
however, is generally questionable. The safest source of information would appear to be the
script for “The Courier’s Tragedy”, but the fact that it exists in different, conflicting versions
makes it hard to decide which one to trust. The real-life events that mimic the play, such as the
Moen 38

American soldiers who were all thrown in a lake and had their bones fished up to be made into
charcoal just like “The Lost Guard of Faggio,” might seem like they can not be based on
coincidence, but this is hard to verify. The muted post horn and the acronym W.A.S.T.E, while
they appear in situations apparently linked to the Trystero, do not provide any useful information
on their own. In general, the information Oedipa has to deal with is presented to her in a
disorganized and fragmented way, but appears to all fit together neatly if one wants it to. In a
way, it boils down to how much Oedipa is willing to trust in coincidence, or to what extent she
wants to see answers.

The problem Oedipa faces here is that of information or signal type. There is “The
Courier’s Tragedy”, which is first of all a play and not a proper historical account, and secondly
it is delivered to her both in the form of pure text (in several different versions) and as speech.
The latter is also complicated by the fact that the actors’ interpretations alter the way the
information comes across. Then there are the myriads of hints gathered from conversations with
a great variety of sources, in addition to information not directly connected to Oedipa’s main
questions, such as the conversation with Nefastis. Then there are the textual clues such as
W.A.S.T.E., and lastly, there are the visual clues; ranging from the muted post horn to
Inverarity’s stamp collection. Just as electronic signals at certain wavelengths can interfere with
each other and even cancel each other out completely, so do the different signals Oedipa receives
interfere with each other. Many of them contain very similar information, which makes it
difficult to keep them separated; a fact that ultimately makes it hard to separate useful from
useless information, which again increases entropy.

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Oedipa displays a hunger for information, and one would initially presume that more
information is preferable to less information, but this only holds true if the total amount of
information is less than or equal to the total amount the receiver is able to process. Wiener notes
that a human “[...] is then likely to perform a complicated type of behaviour efficiently very
close to the edge of an overload, when he will give way in a serious and catastrophic way. This
overload may take place in several ways: either by an excess in the amount of traffic to be
carried, [...] (Wiener, 151), the latter certainly being a concern for Oedipa. A computer that is
equipped to optimally handle a certain number of operations that total to a certain amount of data
will not necessarily crash when faced with an extra workload, but it will process data at a slower
rate, increasing the chances of information entropy. And unlike a human, a computer will always
try to optimize how it handles data to avoid undue strain on the system. Oedipa is concerned with
processing the information she is given, which is illustrated as she is thinking about Inverarity’s
business interests: “She would give them order, she would create constellations [...]” (Pynchon,
72). But she is also trying hard to find answers, which makes her pay less attention to the
efficiency of her processing. This reflects the way she deals with the mystery of the Tristero as
well; she wants to enforce some order to the information she has received, and create clear
connections between the different units of information. She does not however seem to be able or
willing to do this in increments or to filter out information that is of dubious value. She wants to
use all of the information and to process it as a whole in order not to miss something. While the
idea is good, the process is less than efficient.

To an extent, Oedipa might be aware of all this, which is illustrated by the following

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“Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too
might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements,
intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be
too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its
own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world
came back.” (Pynchon, 76).

The truth is in a sense “too bright for her memory to hold”, but not necessarily because the truth
itself requires such a large amount of available storage, but because all the information she
possesses that might contain the truth already takes up too much space and has become so
disorganized and corrupted that little useful can be gained from it. Oedipa wants answers, but
while the end use for the information is finding out who or what the Tristero is, that goal in itself
is a rather unclear one. Why does she want to know about the Tristero? We do not know if it is to
satisfy her own curiosity, to simply to bring order into the mass of disorganized information she
has, to expose the Tristero to the public, and so on. At times it seems unclear whether she herself
knows the answer, and while what she needs might be within her grasp or could already be so, a
lack of a clear focus becomes a hindrance. Because all the information she possesses that might
contain the truth already takes up too much space and has become disorganized and corrupted,
there is the risk that little useful can be gained from it.

Simply going by the tenet “information is power,” Oedipa should have power in
abundance, but instead the information has power over her. Unfortunately for her, she mostly
receives information, and often there is no easily reached sender to send a response back to. The
quality of the information and the difference in signal types, coupled with her processing
Moen 41

capabilities leaves something to be desired. The result is that she is largely at the mercy of the
information she receives; she can not do much with it except to use it as a motivator to go
looking for more, but the information she already has interferes with both itself and new
information. A transfer of information equals a coupling of energy, and the amount of
information Oedipa receives drains her energy and leaves entropy to reign freely. As Timothy
Melley notes; “Thomas Pynchon’s characters frequently believe they have stumbled on a
massive plot, but are unable to confirm its existence.” (Melley, 16).

4. Neuromancer: connecting the whole
In Neuromancer, we follow the protagonist Case, who does most of his work and
adventuring in cyberspace, also called the matrix – Gibson’s version of today’s internet. “Case
was twenty-four. At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl.”
(Gibson, 11). The term cowboy is an apt job-description, at least if we compare Case to the
typical Hollywood-cowboy, entailing a certain disregard for the law and a certain amount of risk.
Case’s relationship with information is a closer one, and a more professional one than Oedipa’s.
It is professional in the way that Case works with information for a living, and close in the
manner of the connection he has to information through cyberspace, and in the manner this
connection further increases his dependency on information.

At the beginning of the story, Case has been cut off from cyberspace; a disgruntled ex-
employer has taken the step to render his nervous system incapable of interfacing with the matrix
as revenge for Case’s taking something that was not his. The fact that Case is unable to enter
cyberspace shows us exactly how dependent he is on it. “For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless
exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall.” (Gibson, 12). This illustrates one important point when
Moen 42

considering Case’s relationship with cyberspace, namely that while he relies on it for much of
what he does as a professional , it entails much more than just work for him. As we shall see
later, this has much to do with how he views his body and the “real” world versus the world he
can access in cyberspace. Case seems, if not addicted to, then at least quite dependant on his
work. While it involves accessing the matrix, there is nothing stopping him from accessing it in
non-work related circumstances. However, in my opinion there is one thing that links his love for
cyberspace to the job he does while connected to it, and that is the fact that it necessitates taking
risks. And the risks he is taking, the satisfaction of having those risks rewarded and the
satisfaction of solving the problems he is presented with seem to constitute much of the thrill he
gets out of cyberspace.

In the time he is not able to access cyberspace, Case grows careless, close to suicidal. His
new employer, Armitage, who will help him in reestablishing his access, neatly sums up Case’s
attitude towards life without it when he says “’Our profile says you’re trying to con the street
into killing you when you’re not looking.’”(Gibson, 40). While this degage attitude illustrates
Case’s dependency, it might not only be the result of his lack of it. It also appears that displaying
this risky behaviour to a certain extent alleviates his abstinences, at least in the situations where
he successfully manages to get someone to come after him, or believes he has done so. When he
is first being shadowed by Molly, Armitages’ hired muscle, close before being introduced to his
new employer for the first time, the drugs in his body combined with an adrenaline surge
provides him with the following revelation:

“Because, in some weird and very approximate way, it was like a run in the
matrix. Get just wasted enough, find yourself in some desperate but strangely
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arbitrary kind of trouble, and it was possible to see Ninsei as a field of data, the
way the matrix had once reminded him of proteins linking to distinguish cell
specialties.” (Gibson, 26).

In a way, the drugs, the thrill and the paranoia combine to supply him with a form of ersatz-
matrix. While this might be positive, we do not get to see the long term effects of such a brief
exposure, but I believe it safe to say that the result might just as well have been one of frustration
rather than solace.

I would perhaps not go as far as Bukatman who, perhaps slightly bluntly, states that
“Humans become prisoners of the interface. Case’s own painful withdrawal from the ecstatic
conditions of cyberspace reveals his status as a prisoner, he is literally addicted to the Cartesian
vectors of cyberspace.” (Bukatman, 285). While I agree that technology offers a great potential
for addiction, especially considering its potential for power, I would say that while Case is
certainly dependent on cyberspace, he is not quite the addict yet. He does spend long stretches of
time connected to the matrix, but he also spends considerable time outside of it – not quite what
you would expect from the typical addict. Another point is that a lot of his time spent in
cyberspace is used to do work he has been hired to do, not to be connected for the sake of getting
away from the outside world. While he suffers withdrawal symptoms of sorts when not able to
access cyberspace, this is not only the result of being cut off from the “bodiless exultation of
cyberspace,” but largely the result of being cut off from doing what he is good at and takes pride
in doing. If one is to call Case an addict, one must at least acknowledge the fact that he is not a
typical addict.

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Case’s vision of Ninsei gives us a glimpse of how he sees information. Through his work
in cyberspace he is already well used to existing in an environment consisting wholly of
information, where all his surroundings can potentially be accessed and analyzed. In other words,
Case is already used to taking and employing a fully cybernetic view of reality, or virtual reality
as it were. The parallel to Oedipa and her view of San Narciso is quite clear, and the fact that
both novels touch upon cities as patterns of information is perhaps not surprising; I have already
looked at how a city can, in Oedipa’s case, be likened to a circuit board. However, Case and
Oedipa’s visions of their respective cities also provide us with a strong contrast. Where Oedipa is
unused to viewing everything as information, sensing only a vague intent to communicate in the
pattern of the city, Case is accustomed to taking this view. For Case, the information that
constitutes the city would also be much like the fields of data in the matrix; information that can
be received, accessed, processed and acted upon, but not necessarily information that attempts to
communicate as if controlled by a single will. Although this latter view must be modified to a
certain extent when Case learns of and comes into contact with the artificial intelligence
Wintermute, I do not believe that it must be modified all that much. Unlike Oedipa, who
experiences the city as one large mass of information, Case knows from cyberspace that it is
made up of many parts, of many different computers and operators. He also knows of AI’s and
some of their capabilities already, and while he experiences what one single AI can accomplish
on its own, he knows that there is not one single entity controlling everyone’s experiences in

Another important fact about the difference between Oedipa and Case’s view of their
respective cities is whether or not they are able to confirm that their visions are rooted in reality.
Oedipa on one hand gets no such confirmation, and it is doubtful whether there is any
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information available that could give her an answer, and also whether or not she would be able to
access and process any such information, should it exist, to produce a definitive answer. In
Case’s world, there are several things that allude to the existence of cities as information
patterns. First of all, cities are already represented as information patterns on electronic maps,
whether inside or outside of cyberspace.

“Program a map to display frequency of data exchange, every thousand
megabytes a single pixel on a very large screen. Manhattan and Atlanta burn solid
white. Then they start to pulse, the rate of traffic threatening to overload your
simulation. Your map is about to go nova. Cool it down. Up your scale. Each
pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million megabytes per second, you begin
to make out certain blocks in midtown Manhattan, outlines of hundred-year-old
industrial parks ringing the old core of Atlanta...” (Gibson, 57).

While this might not at first appear as a very good parallel to Case’s vision of the actual city, the
comparison has some merit because of the importance of technology present in the world he
inhabits. Advanced technology is an important component of the every day lives of Case and his
companions, and electronic information transfer has seemingly taken over completely for some
non-electronic systems, such as today’s postal service, and partially in other areas such as
communication between individuals. Case can already see his city as an information pattern,
which gives a good representation of the city because of the extensive use of electronic
communication. Oedipa can not easily view her city as an information pattern, and the amount of
electronic communication present in it is far lower. Viewing a city as an information network in
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Neuromancer makes sense because of the individual’s daily interaction with technology, and for
professionals such as Case it can to an extent be viewed as a necessity.

Another interesting distinction between Case and Oedipa is the extent to which the
comparisons between technology and cities are made. Oedipa likens the city to a circuit board,
but the comparison is not used the other way around. As we have seen in Neuromancer so far,
the same comparison as in The Crying of Lot 49 can be made. However, as Case is testing his
new computer provided by Armitage, the comparison also in Neuromancer goes the other way
around when the computer goes through an introductory presentation of cyberspace: “’A graphic
representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system.
Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and
constellations of data. Like city lights, receding ...’” (Gibson, 67). The light of course is data, or
hot spots of data depending on the level of magnification. The receding city lights show that the
data clusters in cyberspace can be viewed in much the same way as the streetlights (and other
light sources) in a city; if they are receding you are effectively zooming out, gaining altitude and
a better view of the whole complex. If you zoom in, the spots of light will grow bigger, but you
will see fewer of them albeit in more detail. The architecture of cyberspace allows you to get
your bearings easier, to find out in which direction to go to get to the target information, and